HACKENSACK, NJ -- In a stunning rebuke to the Hackensack Board of Education, Superior Court Judge Estela M. De La Cruz ruled yesterday that ballots in the January 22nd referendum must be changed to correct “misleading” language that a citizen group called part of an "intentional campaign to deceive voters."
The Judge also said she is “concerned” about electioneering and warned school officials not to illegally advocate for voters to support the referendum that would result in a significant tax increase, calling the $170 Million plan, “an extraordinarily expensive commitment” for taxpayers. State law allows the Board to present accurate information to voters but bans electioneering prior to Tuesday’s vote.
Hackensack Smart Schools Inc., a non-profit founded by attorney Martin Cramer and other residents, filed suit over the wording of the ballot question. The court agreed that the phrasing used by the Board of Education was inaccurate because it said the cost of the school plan for taxpayers would be "$308 over thirty years." The group successfully argued that this phrasing was misleading, and the judge ordered that voting machines be edited to read "$308 per year over thirty years."
Prior to the court hearing, Board of Education President Lara Rodriguez said school officials recognized what she called an error but that it was too late to change the ballots. County officials who testified at the hearing and the court disagreed.
"The Board of Education has continuously tried to hide the true cost to taxpayers of its massive bonding plan and the court made it clear that voters have a right to accurate, unbiased information,” said Cramer. "We find it appalling that they knew the language was inaccurate but refused to fix it on their own. This is consistent with a pattern of arrogance and contempt for the taxpayer that they have exhibited from Day One of this process."
The school bonding plan has sparked heated debate, with Board of Education members clashing with Mayor John Labrosse and the City Council over its merits. City officials had asked the Board to allow voters to choose a smaller plan that would make major improvements to all current schools but stop short of building a new school at a cost of over $100 Million. School officials refused and pushed ahead with the full plan.
Labrosse and City Council Members say that school officials can come back to the voters with a smaller and less costly plan if the referendum is defeated on Tuesday.
“We all know the schools need to be renovated and upgraded but this plan is just too much for taxpayers to take all at once,” Mayor Labrosse said. The mayor says that his own taxes would increase by more than $400 and that many of his neighbors would see much higher increases.
Voters will head to the polls on Tuesday, January 22nd from 2-8 p.m. to make the ultimate decision on the plan.